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  • Writer's pictureHeather Davis

The Inconspicuous Superpower of Self-Control

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

If you conquer yourself, then you conquer the world.
– Paulo Coelho

Forget flying, super-strength or being invisible.

In a culture of never-ending distraction and temptation, the true human superpower is the ability to control our own thoughts and actions in support of our bigger goals.

Angela Duckworth, researcher and psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says the bombardment of societal pressures and increasing environmental problems are making the trait of individual self-control more valuable than ever.

In fact, self-control may be one of the most powerful ways we can positively influence our own lives.

You need self-control in an out-of-control world.
– James C. Collins

Materialism, image-consciousness, constant distraction and procrastination all promote short-term gratification rather than longer-term goal-achievement and well-being.

Whether we like it or not, self-control is vital to keep us focused on pursuits of academic success; or on healthy habits of eating and physical activity; or spending and saving.

Seriously proven results

Individual self-control shows up early in childhood.

Research finds that much of it may be genetic, with our brain formation accounting for the majority of differences in impulsivity and self-regulation. Early socialization and personal experiences also play a role.

Studies have found a number of broad positive outcomes associated with having high self-control including better relationships, better academic achievement, better mental and emotional well-being and greater happiness in life.

Having low self-control has been associated with eating issues, financial problems, including debt and impulse buying, as well as increased levels of procrastination.

In a 40-year study, Moffit et al., (2011) tracked 1,000 children from birth through their 30’s. The findings were profound: childhood self-control actually predicted adult health, wealth and well-being.

Self-control is the chief element in self-respect, and self-respect is the chief element in courage.
- Thucydides

Survival the most self-regulated

Perhaps because of it’s broad, and long-ranging benefits, De Ridder et al. (2012) declared self-control the ‘hallmark of adaptation’.

Darwin would be proud. Despite the evolutionary upsides, turns out it’s a rare trait indeed. Of 24 character strengths ranked by adults in 54 countries, the trait of self-control was found to be among the least common of traits. (Park & Peterson, 2006).

This is not your mother's self-control. The picture of self-control as this hardcore, painful denial of pleasure is outdated.

Self-control and the broader, self-regulation, are far more versatile and strategic than generally given credit for.

Self-control, self-regulation & bigger goals

There’s no reason to control ourselves without something bigger that gives us a reason. That’s where self-regulation comes in.

Self-control strategies are powerful behaviors, but self-regulation requires a goal or a desired end state to provide the motivation. Self-regulation wants to know what the point is in controlling ourselves, what’s the bigger goal?

Self-regulation then takes into account that goal and includes a helpful, albeit annoying, feedback loop.

Once we know our goal: like a healthy body or being able to fund our retirement, it is self-regulation that helps us monitor the progress or discrepancy between where we are currently and what we say we want to accomplish.

It’s self-regulation that provides the platform for successfully pursuing bigger goals, helping alert us to apply self-control strategies when necessary to keep ourselves on track.

Discipline is choosing between what you want now, and what you want most.
– Abraham Lincoln

Self-control & goal dilemmas

Our self-control is tested when we experience a goal conflict. The dilemma between do & don’t, with goal progress clearly pinned on one side or the other.

According to Gillebaart et al. (2015), people high in self-control successfully respond to, and resolve the conflict they’re faced with.

They found that those with more self-control could resolve those conflicts faster and earlier in the encounter. Part of this, they surmise, was due to a faster identification that the conflict existed.

Multiple studies have shown that the earlier self-control strategies can be applied, the more effective they are.

Self-control is more than inhibition

Aligning behavior with long-term goals requires more than inhibition or just stopping behaviors.

You can’t just stop your way to success. You have to start a few things too.

To make progress on goals, De Ridder et al. (2011) found that the ability to stop ideas, feelings and behaviors that do not align with what we want to achieve in the long run is only part of it.

They say self-control is as much – if not more – about initiating certain productive behaviors as inhibiting unproductive ones.

It's bad enough you can’t eat the cake. They want you to eat broccoli and run too?

Automated, effortless self-control habits

Beyond early dilemma detection and resolution, people with high self-control use other proactive, relatively effortless strategies (Gillebaart & De Ridder, 2015).

The majority of self-control is not actually painful, effortful deprivation but rather found in automated, adaptive routines, habits and behaviors that support long-term goals.

In this way, self-control becomes embedded in behaviors like exercising, healthy eating and better study habits as the real power in achieving goals of health or academic success.

Momentum is really something. Good or bad, once a habit sets in, it’s hard to break.

Early-stage: situation selection & proactive avoidance

One early-stage method of self-control helps make life easier by avoiding the conflict in the first place. Situation selection is a proactive strategy of structuring our environment to align with our goals, allowing them to more easily progress.

Research has found that people with high self-control understand they have the power to create and control their environment in ways that are conducive to achieving long-term goals.

This includes seeking out or avoiding certain places, environments, people or situations in order to protect and progress future interests (Gross, 1998).

Like pro-active avoidance. If you want to save money, avoid the mall. If you want to eat healthy, avoid fast food restaurants or make it a habit to never purchase junk food to keep in the house.

In these ways, Duckworth, Milkman and Laibson (2019) found that one of the most effective self-control strategies involved changing how we participate in situations to help our behavior align with our goals.

You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.
– Marcus Aurelius

Early-stage: attentional deployment

Another early-stage self-control strategy is attentional deployment.

It’s the ability to voluntarily concentrate and actively focus on a task at hand, as well as being able to direct attention away from distractions or situations on command.

If you can’t escape a situation physically, these are practices that can help mentally restrict the influence of temptations.

Late-stage: reappraisal

Another they say, is the ability to change how we think and subsequently feel, about a situation once it’s underway or over.

Reappraisal can be a productive reaction to an uncontrollable situation because we always have control over how we interpret what’s happening. It involves proactively interpreting what’s happening in a way that supports long-term goals.

Reappraisal is easier for lesser emotional conflicts. It may not work on French fries.

Research by Nielsen et al. (2019) found that both attentional deployment as well as the ability to reappraise a situation, are positively associated with subjective well-being.

Last-stage: sheer willpower

Finally, there’s the hardest and most arduous of all the self-control strategies: sheer willpower or inhibition.

The temptation is already here in front of us. Now what?

At this point, we’ve bypassed all the earlier, easier ways to avoid the goal-conflict. We’ve made it as painful as possible.

Why are we even in this aisle? On this website? At this store?

Why are we even looking at the phone again?

This is the last of the self-control options. It takes the most effort and has proven least effective because inhibition can only function with enough attention, focus, energy and motivation all working together at the same time. Things like fatigue, stress or intoxication make the ability to control impulses in favor of goals even more difficult.

These days there’s just too much that’s being thrown at us to constantly have to fight ourselves day in and day out when it comes to what we eat, what we buy or how active we are.

There are serious limitations to depending on sheer willpower as the go-to self-control plan. When we do, studies show that our subjective well-being and happiness suffers.

Improving self-control

Despite self-control having both a strong genetic predisposition, as well as a general stability from child through adulthood, there’s still room for improvement.

Like many personality traits, self-control is like a muscle that with practice can be strengthened. Brent Roberts and Daniel Mroczek (2008) have found that across our lifespan, as our experiences expand, our self-confidence, self-regulation and stability do increase with age.

Work experience in early adulthood seems to be an important environment for this development. Young adults who are more successful and satisfied with their careers early on, show expansion in conscientiousness, self-control and emotional stability (Roberts, Caspi & Moffitt, 2003).

Early negative workplace experiences, however, do just the opposite.

Behaviors like aggression, theft and exaggerating illness at work, have been shown to reduce conscientiousness and related traits - including self-control (Roberts et al., 2006).

In the office or out - any and every opportunity to grow this mighty capability leads to nothing but upside, even incrementally, for health, wealth and well-being.

The ability to delay gratification has implications not only for a person’s life, but also for a community, for a people, for a county.
– Joachim de Posada


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